SIGHTS IN HO CHI MINH CITY: FAMOUS HOTELS AND STREETS AND VIETNAM-WAR-RELATED MUSEUMS AND PLACES

SIGHTS IN HO CHI MINH CITY

SIGHTS IN HO CHI MINH CITY include Ho Chi Minh Museum, formerly known as Dragon House Wharf, Cu Chi Tunnels, system of museums, theaters, cultural houses. Despite its quite recent past, Ho Chi Minh City nevertheless possesses various beautiful buildings, displaying a characteristic combination of Vietnamese, Chinese and European cultures. These include Nha Rong (Dragon House Wharf), Quoc To Temple (National Ancestors Temple), Xa Tay (Municipal Office), Ho Chi Minh Municipal Theater as well as many pagodas and churches (Vinh Nghiem, Giac Vien, Giac Lam, Phung Son pagodas). After more than 300 years of development, Ho Chi Minh City presents many ancient architectural buildings, famous vestiges and renowned sights. It is remarkable for its harmonious blending of traditional national values with northern and western cultural features. Recently, many tourist areas are invested such as Thanh Da, Binh Quoi Village, Dam Sen Park, Saigon Water Park, Suoi Tien, Ky Hoa, which draw numerous tourists.

Saigon River is a pleasant place for taking a stroll. There are several expensive floating restaurants, including one shaped like a huge whale. Customers can view the river through the mouth. In the area of the floating restaurants, small boats can be rented for a few dollars an hour. Many people will approach you and ask you if you want to go on a boat ride. At night the river is lit with signs for Hitachi, Fuji, Compaq, Samsung. Their reflections shimmer in the water. Sampans and freighters are anchored nearby. The Municipal Hotel is the huge weeding cake building.

Intersection of Le Loi and Nguyen Boulevards is sometimes called the Vietnamese Time Square. During the Vietnam Way it was filled with Vietnamese hustlers and drunk American GIs looking for action. GIs also roamed the bars nearby on To Do (Freedom Street), where they bought "comfort ladies" $5 shots of whiskey that were really tea. Today the intersection is dominated by young Vietnamese men on motorscooters racing around, showing of for their girlfriends. The 100-year-old Municipal Theater is on Le Loi and Nguyen Boulevard.

Pham Ngy Lao Street is the main backpacker area. Extending for about seven blocks, it is filled with a 100 or so cheap hotels and guest houses, Internet cafes, tour and travel agencies, motorcycle rentals, cheap restaurants and coffee shops, and souvenir stands. In the early 1990s it was a residenial street with a couple cheap hotels used by peasant farmers in town to sell their crops. An Ngoc Tran, who opened up a small tour agency in the lobby of the Hoang Tu Hotel, is credited with beginning the process of making it backpacker Mecca. In recent years , the area has started going more upscale in an effort to attract tourists with more money.

Former U.S. Embassy is where the last Americans out of Saigon boarded helicopters on a rooftop pad and flew out of the country on April 30, 1975, hours before North Vietnamese tanks rumbled through the gates of the embassy compound. Built behind a concrete barrier, strong enough to repel rocket-propelled grenades, this complex includes a swimming pool and numerous buildings. In the waning years of the war it was one of the busiest U.S. diplomatic posts, issuing tens of thousands of immigrant and visitors visas a year, mainly to Vietnamese with family connections in the United States.

See History

After the War the American Embassy was taken over by the state-owned oil company, Petro Vietnam. In 1998, the U.S. embassy was torn down to make way a new consulate that went up next door. The Vietnamese government erected a red-stone memorial to Communist heros outside the main gate on the sidewalk. For a while it was tourist attraction. Tour buses mainly drove up to it and let visitors look at it through the windows of their buses. In September 1999, a new United States consulate opened in a new building built on the site of the old American embassy. The first American ambassador to Vietnam, Pete Peterson, was a navy pilot who spent 6½ years as prisoner of war in Hanoi.

Other Sights in Ho Chi Minh City include the former Independence Hall (now the Office of Military Management), the former National Theater (now the Government Assembly Building); and the Opera House, which, like its counterpart in Hanoi, is modeled after the Paris Opera House. The Lycee Chasseloup-Laubat, a lovely colonial building, was used in the film The Lover .

DONG KHOI STREET

DONG KHOI STREET (formerly Rue Catinat) is one of Vietnam's most famous streets. Immortalized in Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American and once the most fashionable French street in Asia, it is lined with bookstores, new offices, hotels, restaurants upscale shops, bistros, cafes and nightclubs frequented by expatriates. Up until 60 years ago it was called Rue Catinat. Dong Khoi means “Uprising Street” and before that, it was called Freedom Street.

The shops sell lacquerware, silk clothes, souvenirs, jewelry, silver items, Vietnam War paraphernalia and hill tribes crafts. A pleasant place to sit outside and have a beer and watch the street life go by is across from the National Assembly. Up the street from Lam Son Square is the General Post office, a building designed by Gustave Eiffel.

Mark Magnier wrote in Los Angeles Times, “The story of Catinat-Freedom-Uprising Street is the story of Vietnam itself: The last half a century has seen French, pro-American and communist regimes, along with an economic opening, each inspiring new names Take Rue Catinat, which in "The Quiet American" was portrayed as the epitome of rundown, opium-soaked Saigon under French rule. Given the baggage associated with this particular street, named after a warship that in 1856 helped cement France's imperial grip on the country, it's hardly surprising that the newly independent Vietnamese renamed it as quickly as you can say "au revoir.". [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2010]

“After independence in 1954, as people celebrated a parade of French derrieres returning to Paris, anti-communist dictator Ngo Dinh Diem renamed it Tu Do (Freedom) Street, part of a reassertion of Vietnamese names throughout the country. Although the new name may have helped Diem cozy up to the Americans in the run-up to the Vietnam War, it didn't bring the freedom from vice that the Catholic moralist dictator sought. A flood of American GIs in the 1960s brought more drugs and sex to Freedom Street, along with rock 'n' roll and traffic jams. A Vietnamese joke at the time, after city planners routed all vehicles in a single direction, held that freedom was a one-way street reserved for Americans. With U.S. spending soaring and more shops adopting English names, a worried Saigon government ordered that all stores feature Vietnamese names three times larger than foreign names on their signs. In one noted example, the " Texas" bar was reborn as the "Te-xa" bar in a larger font.

“With the fall of Saigon in 1975, triumphant Viet Cong went on a sign-painting spree, especially in newly renamed Ho Chi Minh City, replacing street names honoring anti-communist heroes with those of communist luminaries."First they'd announce a street's new name on TV or radio," recalled Nguyen Quang Vinh, a pharmacist and Viet Cong soldier in Saigon when it fell. "Then a couple of days later you'd see them putting up the new signs. There were a lot, so it took some getting used to." The street known as Freedom became Uprising Street, after a revolutionary Viet Cong movement in nearby Ben Tre province.Recently, as more affluent Vietnamese bridle under Communist Party restrictions, that has prompted a joke that everything may be on the rise, but freedom is gone.”

FAMOUS HO CHI MINH CITY HOTELS

Rex Hotel (Intersection of Le Loi and Nguyen Boulevards) was a famous watering hole for diplomats, spies, officers and war correspondents during the Vietnam War. As was the case then, there are some attractive and friendly women that spend a lot of time at the hotel. The cabaret show at the Rex is entertaining. The show used to combine traditional Vietnamese dances with Russian folk songs but these day the shows are geared more for Westerners. The cats are the topiary garden that were once fixtures of the rooftop bar are gone.

Emily Brady wrote in the New York Times, During the Vietnam War, the Rex Hotel was the home of the “Five O’Clock Follies,” the daily briefings the United States military gave the press corps. Today, the palm-lined rooftop bar provides a kitschy setting — complete with giant ceramic elephants — for a sunset pastis (65,000 dong) or fresh pineapple juice (48,000 dong).” [Source: Emily Brady, New York Times, December 18, 2008]

Hotel de Ville (Nguyen Hue Blvd and Dong Koi Street) is one of Saigon's most noticeable landmarks. Brightly lit up at night and built between 1901 and 1908, it is a garish colonial building situated in front of a lively square with food vendors and amusements. Visitors are not allowed in the Hotel de Ville, which is closed to visitors. The building is now known as Ho Chi Minh City Hall or Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee Head office.

Brink Hotel (Hai Ba Trung Street) is gone, but the tall dilapidated building that housed it is still there. On Christmas Eve 1964, Viet Cong terrorist drove a jeep with a huge bomb into the courtyard of the hotel, a popular hang out for U.S. army officers. The explosion killed two Americans and wounded 58. Today there is a monument at the site with a concrete relief of American bodies mixed with debris.

Continental Hotel (132-134 Dong Khoi Street; 84-8-3829-9201; www.continental-saigon.com) was founded by a Frenchman in 1880. A popular watering hole for journalists during the war. It has high ceilings and lots of carved wood. Tien Dat wrote in The Saigon Times Weekly: “In the late 19th century, he high-class traveled in the city by horse-drawn carriages. This means of transport was quite popular on the Catinat (now Dong Khoi), the main street in Saigon at the time. In 1880, French architects started work on a luxury hotel there, which was to be seen as a landmark in the city's social and economic life and a milestone of the hospitality business in Saigon. The majority of the Continental Hotel's customers were French officials, high- ranking civil servants, ladies and luxury travelers who stopped by Saigon on their tours from Hong Kong to Japan or on their trips to the Angkor Temples, the world's seventh wonder. [Source: By Tien Dat, Saigon Times Weekly, September 29, 2002]

The builder of the Hotel Continental Palace was Pierre Cazeau, a home-appliance and construction material producer. “In 1911, Duke De Montpensier, a famous playboy in France, came to Vietnam, carrying with him a car to make a trip to the Angkor Temples. When he was in Saigon, De Montpensier decided to buy the Continental Hotel from the owners and offered it to a countess. A monument he left in Vietnam is the Lau Ong Hoang (Tower of the Lord) in Phan Thiet (Binh Thuan Province). In the 1920s, Catinat Street, where Hotel Continental Palace was located, was dubbed Saigon's "Canebire," the name of a famous street in the city of Marseille, France. The famous French writer Andr‚ Malreaux and his wife were among the hotel's permanent guests from 1924-1925.

In 1930, Le Van Mau, a Vietnamese landlord in My Tho Township, bought the Continental Hotel from De Montpensier, and transferred the property to his French son-in-law—Mathieu Franchini— for management. It is certain to say that Mau was the first Vietnamese owner of then largest hotel in Vietnam. Franchini ran the hotel successfully for 30 years. He left Vietnam after the French colonial regime came to an end. Philippe, Mathieu Franchini's son, ran the hotel until 1964 when he left Vietnam.

“The 1930s were the heyday of the Continental Hotel which was renovated to French standards. Only wealthy people could afford to stay at the most luxurious hotel in Saigon at that time where they could sit in the terrace enjoying the fresh air from the Saigon River, drinking wine or tea and watching traffic on Catinat Street. Among the celebrities who stayed at the hotel were noted Indian poet Ranbindranath Tagore.

During World War II, several American magazines stationed their bureaus at the Continental Hotel, Time on the first floor and Newsweek on the second. In the 1950s, before the Vietnam War, renowned British writer Graham Greene stayed in Room 214 where he created "The Quiet American," a book about the waning days of the French in Indochina and the beginning of the American presence in Vietnam which was made into movie in 2001.

Then came the time when "Newsmen covering the Vietnam War measured the ups and downs of its course by the fortunes of the hotel," as written in the book "Great Oriental Hotels" by Martin Meade. William Tuohy, Newsweek magazine's Saigon Bureau chief, wrote in his book "Dangerous Company": "After writing our stories, we would gather around for dinner and drinks." The reason for the Newsmen to choose the Hotel Continental was simple: It is located in the heart of Saigon, adjacent to the National Assembly (now the municipal theater) where the press circle would gather around for collecting information and discussing political issues and all. The hotel was then called "Radio Catinat."

The hotel was closed after April 30, 1975. In 1986, the hotel was officially taken over by Saigontourist Holding Company. In the early 1990s, the Hotel Continental was renovated but its original French architecture has remained unchanged. Some VIP guests who graced the hotel after 1975 included French President Giscard D'Estaing and Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac (later French president).

The Continental is now a three-star hotel with 83 rooms, two western restaurants, a 200-plus seat conference hall, a bar and other facilities like sauna and massage. Apart from the reputation as Vietnam's oldest hotel, the Continental enjoys a prime location in downtown Saigon near the Municipal Theater and is considered a cultural landmark of the city. In 2001, its occupancy rate averaged 80 percent. Most guests were Britons, Germans, French, Japanese, Americans, Canadians and Australians. To attract customers, the hotel is promoting online marketing through a website with six languages (English, French, Japanese, Spanish, German and Vietnamese).

Continental Hotel: Address: 132-134 Dong Khoi Street, District 1, HCM City Tel: 8299201 Email: continental@hcm.vnn.vn . Website: www.saigon-tourist.com/continental, www.continentalvietnam.com

MUSEUMS IN HO CHI MINH CITY

Ton Duc Thang Museum (No.5 Ton Duc Thang Street, District 1) was established on the occasion of the late President Ton Duc Thang's centennial birthday anniversary (August 20th, 1988). It was established in the former residence of Tran Thien Khiem, Premier of the Saigon government prior to 1975. The exhibits are a lively reflection of the life and cause of President Ton Duc Thang. The museum has more than 600 items, documents and photos relating to the life of the later president, who is remembered as a great patriot and model fighter. President was the only Vietnamese who participated in the anti-war activities on a French warship on the Black Sea in 1917; these activities supported the success of the world's first proletarian revolution, the Russian October Revolution. He replaced President Ho Chi Minh in 1969.

Vietnam History Museum (Van Hoa Park, No. 2 Nguyen Binh Khiem Street, District 1) houses a collection of Funan, Cham, Vietnamese and Khmer pieces including stuff looted from Angkor Wat in Cambodia; the museum portrays Vietnam’s history from ancient times (approximately 300,000 years ago) up to the 1930s, when Vietnam’s Communist Party was founded, hrough the different exhibits that can be seen, the museum The History Museum building was built in 1929 and was called "Musee Blanchard de la Bosse". In 1956, it was renamed Saigon National Museum, and finally in 1975, after some renovations, the museum was expanded and became the Ho Chi Minh City History Museum.

The museum’s exhibits are divided according to the following topics: 1) Rise of the Hung Kings; 2) Fight for Independence (1st-10th centuries); 3) Ly Dynasty (11th-13th centuries); 4) Tran Dynasty (13th-14th centuries); 5) Le Dynasty (15th-18th centuries); 6) Tay Son Dynasty (18th-19th centuries); 7) Nguyen Dynasty (19th-middle of the 20th centuries Other part of the museum displays specific characteristics of the southern area of Vietnam such as the Oc-Eo culture, the ancient culture of the Mekong Delta, Cham art, the Ben Nghe Saigon art, the Vietnamese ethnic minorities, and ancient pottery of various Asian countries.

Other Museums include Uncle Ho's Museum for Mementos, a small museum which describes Ho Chi Minh's life and contains his sandals, clothe sand other personal items; the Military Museum; and Art Museum;

WAR REMNANTS EXHIBITION

WAR REMNANTS EXHIBITION (28 Vo Van Tan St.) used be known as the Museum of American War Crimes until U.S. war veterans complained and the name was changed to the War Crimes Museum. A few years later they complained again and the name was changed to its present name. Despite its anti-American slant, many of its visitors are Americans and other Westerners along with 2,000 Vietnamese school children a day. It is housed in the former U.S. Information Agency Abraham Lincoln Library.

Among the items on display are guns, flamethrowers and other weapons; photos of bombed hospitals, massacred villagers and planes and helicopters on bombing missions; experimental bombs that released thousands of tiny darts; models of the notorious tiger cages used by the South Vietnamese army to keep Vietcong prisoners; a deformed baby in a jar reportedly produced by Agent Orange; and examples of fragment bombs and napalm side by side with photos of mangled "Frag bomb" survivors and napalm-charred bodies.

There are also photographs of: 1) a Vietcong soldier "being thrown from a flying helicopter" for "refuging to answer interrogations,” 2) American soldiers burning villages and arresting women, 3) an armored personnel carrier dragging a Vietnamese man to death, and 4) captured Vietcong sympathizers in the middle of being tortured.

One particularly disturbing pictures shows four American soldiers, who look as if they are still their teens, posing and smiling behind two propped up Vietcong heads and two decapitated bodies. Another shows an American soldiers kicking a badly mutilated body. This one is accompanied by the caption "this soldier seems satisfied.”

Most of the photographs were taken by American photojournalists. Many are accompanied by English captions like: "There was a blood streak found out from a bush in the garden, flowing along to an underground shelter, and the moaning of a wounded person was heard clearly inside. An American soldiers threw down two grenades. The moaning died out completely. Another American soldier fastened the legs of the peasant with a rope, then dragging out of an underground shelter."

In the courtyard of the museum is a rusting American M48 tank, a CBU-55 bomb (powerful enough to suck all the oxygen from an area a kilometer across), a 15,000-pound "seismic" bomb, and a large yellow bulldozer that purportedly was used by the Americans to bury villages. There is also a guillotine said to have been used by the French and the South Vietnamese. It is accompanied by a sign that reads: "The blade only weighs fifty kilos." After taking in all the blood, gore and weapons of destruction, you can relax with a performance of Vietnamese water puppetry in a theater that is part of the museum complex.

The War Remnants Museum established in September 1975 not long after the Vietnam War ended. According to the Vietnamese government: the museum contains “countless artifacts, photographs, and pictures documenting American war crimes. Such documents illustrate the killing of civilians, spreading of chemicals, torturing of prisoners, and the effects of the war on the north. Planes, tanks, bombs, and helicopters are also on display. Outside the museum are some rooms displaying cultural products of Vietnam. Over the last 20 years, over 6 million visitors entered the museum. Among this number, nearly 1 million were foreign visitors, including American tourists.”

REUNIFICATION PALACE

REUNIFICATION PALACE (entrance on 106 Nguyen Street) is the former Presidential Palace of the South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu. Known before the reunification of Vietnam as Independence Palace, it looks like an administration office building on the outside but is filled with rare woods and treasures and communication gear on the inside, and reportedly has been left exactly as it was when Thieu lived in it to show the decadence of the South Vietnamese regime. The capture of the palace on April 30, 1975 is considered the end of the Vietnam War.

Reunification Palace is also known as Reunification Hall or the Presidential Palace. It is officially known as Thong Nhat Conference Hall, Construction of the palace began in 1962 after Norodom Palace, the old French colonial palace used by the French governors, was damaged by South Vietnamese air force planes in a coup that tried to kill the hated South Vietnamese president Ngo Dihn Diem. The planes failed in their mission but Diem was assassinated by his own troops in 1963 before he had a chance to live in his pleasuredome, which was completed in 1966 at the height of the Vietnam War escalation.

After 1954, Ngo Dinh Diem and his family lived in the Norodom Palace. Diem rebuilt the palace after the 1963 coup attempt and bombardment and this was replaced by another one, Independence Palace. It was designed by Western-trained architect Ngo Viet Thu. The construction was undertaken by Saigon engineers.

The palace was paid for largely with American tax dollars that had been earmarked for other purposes. One U.S. Senator accused the Diem Regime of siphoning off $2 million ofin American money to pay for teak floors and 100 fountains. Diem was outraged by the accusations. The palace has only one fountain, one of his aides later, “We had quite enough money to build it without outside help.”

Reunification Palace has been described as both “awfully kitch and seedy” and a “fantastic and amazing contradiction —non-Vietnamese at the same time. It incorporates some Chinese and Vietnamese auspicious symbols: the T shape is derived from the Chinese character for good destiny and another shape is linked to the character for prosperity.

At 11:30 on 30 April 1975, the palace was overrun by Liberation Army tanks. Duong Van Minh, who was president at that time, together with his 45-member cabinet, surrendered unconditionally. After the liberation of Saigon, the Independence Palace was turned into the Headquarters of the Municipal Military Administrative Committee. In December 1975, the palace welcomed a conference for national reunification. To mark the historical significance of the event, the building was renamed Thong Nhat Conference Hall (Reunification Conference Hall).

Reunification Palace was opened to visitors in 1990. It is open daily from 7:30am to 11:00am and 13:00am to 4:00pm. Foreigners are welcomed at a main desk and escorted up with English and French-speaking guides. Video of bombing raids are shown in one room. Make sure to catch the demonstrations of Vietnamese music in a hall near the souvenir shop. Visitors are allowed to try the musical instruments.

Rooms in Reunification Palace: Located on a vast park in the middle of the city, this "shamefully opulent" palace has four main floors and two mezzanines with gambling parlors, a trophy room with severed elephant feet, a dance hall, carpeted reception halls, a private movie theater, a collection of horse tails, exquisite porcelains, crystal chandeliers, and beautiful works of art.

The five-story building has rooms and chambers decorated with the finest modern Vietnamese arts and crafts. The ground floor room has a boat-shaped table that was often used for conferences. Upstairs, a room called Phu Dau Rong was where Nguyen Van Thieu received foreign delegations. The residential quarters are in the back of the building. On the third floor, there is a card-playing room. This floor also possesses a terrace with a heliport where a helicopter is parked. The fourth floor was used for dancing, and even had a casino. The most interesting part of the building is probably the basement containing a network of tunnels, a telecommunication centre, and a war room.

Visitors get a chance to see all this as well as Thieu's office, the basketball-court-size cabinet room and conference hall, guest halls, a dance hall, card-playing rooms, the state room and an international reception room with elephant tusks and carved teak furniture. On the terrace on the roof is a helicopter pad. There are 95 rooms in all and they cover a total floor space of 20,000 square meters (65,000 square feet).

Worth a look are the “rumpus room,” with gold-leaf beams, laminated shelving and linoleum floors; the main dining room, dominated by a painting of the palace’s architect, Ngo Viet Thu; the marble-sheethed columns at the entrance; a reception room coated in gold lacquerware and a desk for the President Thieu that was purposely built higher than the seats used by guests; and a den with a barrel-shaped boat and oversized sofa. The rooftop mediation center was used by Thieu as a disco.

On the grounds of the estate are lotus ponds, a relaxation area called the Four Directions Pavilion, topiary gardens, a guest house with 33 rooms, a reserve generator with an output of 350 KVA, tennis courts, a Highland house on stilts, and a park with trees and flowers. Today, you can also see the Vietcong tank that crashed through main gate of the palace on April 30, 1975, and an F5-E fighter that dropped bombs on the palace.

In the final days of his rule Thieu spent much of times in the basement, an underground warren of tunnels, bunkers, map rooms, long empty corridors and rooms filled with sophisticated communication equipment. One of the tunnels lead all the way to Gia Long Palace, now the home of the Revolutionary Museum.

MUSEUM OF THE REVOLUTION

MUSEUM OF THE REVOLUTION (one block from Reunification Place on Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street, No.65 Ly Tu Trong Street, District 1) is housed in Gia Long Palace, a lovely white neo-classical mansion built in the 1880s and occupied by the French lieutenant governor. In the courtyard, partially hidden by vines and flowers is a Huey helicopter, a tank and F-5 phantom jet. Inside in the exquisite colonial halls and chambers are displays on French colonialism, diagrams of the Cu Chi Tunnels, false-bottomed arms smuggling boats, and photographs of burning monks and of dead Americans and Vietnamese taken during the Tet offensive.

The construction of the museum building started in 1885 and was completed in 1890 under the design of French architect Alfred Foulhoux. Following that, the building became the residence of Japanese Governor Minoda. It was also the office of the Nam Bo Provisional Administrative Committee (1945) and of the Republic of France High Commissioner. The building was later reconverted into the residence of the Governor of Nam Ky. Until August 1978, the building was finally turned into the Ho Chi Minh City Revolutionary Museum.

The museum displays items related to the invasion of Vietnam by French colonialists, the founding of the Vietnam Communist Party, the anti-French resistance in Saigon-Gia Dinh (1945 to 1954), the anti-American movement, the national resistance of Saigon-Gia Dinh and the Ho Chi Minh Campaign.

PAGODAS AND CHURCHES IN HO CHI MINH CITY

Giam Lam Pagoda (two miles from Cholon at 118 la Long Quan Street in Tan Binh District) is the oldest and one of the largest temples in Ho Chi Minh City. Founded in 1744 during the reign of Lord Nguyen Phuc Khoat. and rebuilt in 1900, it is Buddhist temple that incorporates elements of Taoism and Confucianism and is filled with funeral tablets, pictures of the dead, handwritten notes seeking luck, health and security from hoodlums and lawsuits.

Giac Lam Pagoda (also known as the Cam Son or Cam Dien Pagoda) contains many Buddha statues made of brass and precious timber. Unlike many other local religious structures, it has not been renovated since 1900; the architecture, layout, and ornamentation remain almost unaltered. The scenery around the pagoda is picturesque and many people come here to write or recite poetry. Standing in the front garden is a shining white statue of the Goddess of Mercy, perched upon a lotus blossom, a symbol of purity. Inside, on either side of the main altar, are statues of Ameda Buddha and Sakyamuni Buddha, along with more representations of the Goddess of Mercy. Giac Lam Pagoda is open from 6:00am to 9:00pm.

Giac Vien Pagoda (Lac Long Quan Street, District 11) has the classic architecture of the pagodas built in the Nguyen Dynasty of the 19th century and is similar Giam Lam Pagoda). In 1798, a monk who was in charge of taking care of the restoration of Giac Lam Pagoda, built a small pavilion for his daily prayers, called Quan Am Cac (Kwan Yin Pavilion). In the third year under king Tu Duc's reign (1850), the pavilion was rebuilt and named Giac Vien Pagoda. When building Dam Sen Tourist Park, the Management Board decided to preserve Giac Vien Pagoda intact and incorporate it into the park, making the park more attractive due to its cultural-historical value.

Giac Vien Pagoda has typical features, of southern Vietnam. The main shrine, also a big hall, is 360 square meters in area, and used to worship Buddha. To its east and west, there are corridors, a room for the monks to prepare clothing before assisting the Superior Monk, and a large and spacious room at the rear. Along the corridors, there are small altars with worshiping items. In particular, there are rows of wooden pillars engraved with parallel sentences. The letters are carved delicately and painted with red lacquer and trimmed with gold. Around them there are decorative designs of leaves and climbing plants. All 153 statues in the pagoda are made of jack wood. The faces and postures of the statues look honest and they are placed low, creating a close feeling between them and the viewers.

The most attractive items are 60 plates, which are engraved on both sides made of jack wood. They are made with gold. The most beautiful plate is engraved with 18 fat, honest and smiling Arhats, with each riding on the back of a buffalo, a cow, a pig, a goat... Some plates are engraved with birds, ducks, fish ... but all looking alive. Other plates are carved with fruits popular in the South, such as coconut, mangos teen, durian, rambutan. These wooden engravings are the only ones that have been kept intact in Vietnam.

Duc Ba Cathedral (Han Thuyen Street, facing down Dong Khoi Street, District 1, Ho) was inaugurated in 1880 and became the spiritual and cultural crucible of the French presence in the Orient. Even though the cathedral is built in a Western architectural style, it has a uniquely Eastern aspects in accordance with designs by its architect Admiral J, Bourard, who was famed for his religious architecture. He envisaged, and executed, a basilica-like structure with a square plan. The cathedral is composed of two main central bays with two sidereal corridors, with tall pillars and light coming in through sets of high windows, and a semi-circular shrine. The style follows a Roman pattern, although the outside contains some modifications: the cathedral's vaults are Gothic, and a modern steel skeleton supports the whole building.

Duc Ba means “Our Lady.” The church is also known as Notre Dame Cathedral, In 1894 a pointed minaret was added to the bell tower, at the behest of an architect named Gardes, who was also responsible for the Xa Tay Palace, the building that now houses the Municipal People's Committee. The cathedral is a much smaller than those in France, but it was the largest in the French empire. The interior is very large: the principal shrine and two additional bays are 93 meters long, and reach 35 meters in width at one point. The semi-circular shrine at the rear seats a choir during services, and there are five chapels.

The walls are made of Bien Hoa granite, combined with red tiles from Marseilles, all without coating. Red tiles from France were also used on the roofs, but they were later replaced with tiles of equal quality from Phu Huu. Natural light streams in through stained-glass windows which were made by the Lorin Company from the French town of Sartre.

The whole building is well-ventilated thanks to a system of air-holes placed above and under the windows. The belfry is 57 meters high. For a long time it was the highest structure in the city centre, and was the first thing an arriving traveller would see when approaching the city by boat. Six bells weigh a combined 25,850 kilograms. In 1885, the floor was taken apart and new pillars were added, because the original foundation could not bear the cathedral's weight. Stepping inside the cathedral, tourists see a line of Chinese characters eulogizing the Jesus' mother, "the innocent and unblemished Virgin Mother", and stained-glass portraits of Vietnamese believers amid Asiatic plants.

On the square in front of the cathedral, there is a statue of the Virgin Mother made of white marble, symbolizing peace. During October 2005, the statue was reported to have shed tears, attracting thousands of people and forcing authorities to stop traffic around the Cathedral. However, the top clergy of the Catholic Church in Vietnam confirmed that the Virgin Mary statue in front of a cathedral did not shed tears, which nevertheless failed to disperse the crowd flocking to the statue days after the incident. The reported 'tear' flowed down the right cheek of the face of the statue.

Other Pagodas and Religious Building in Central Saigon include the Jade Emperor Pagoda, Dai Giac Pagoda, Vinh Nghiem Pagoda, Xa Loi Pagoda, Phung Son Tu Pagoda and Tran Dao Temple; Notre Dam Cathedral, built in 1890 with material imported from Marseilles; Mariamman Hindu Temple and Saigon Central Mosque.

CHOLON: HO CHI MINH CITY’S CHINATOWN

Cholon (three kilometers from the Ho Chi Minh City city center), or Chinatown, is a lively maze of narrow streets and alleys with many Chinese temples, markets, Chinese apothecaries selling herbal medicines, shops selling nothing but paper handicrafts, sidewalk manicurists, corner bicycle repair stalls, art galleries with works by modern Vietnamese painters, and shops selling and shops selling Western- and Vietnamese-style silk clothes, Vietnamese musical instruments, hill tribe fabrics and crafts, and Chinese-style ceramics.

Cholon developed in the 18th century when the Ming Dynasty was overthrown and many Chinese who were faithful to the Ming fled to Vietnam. In 1788, a group of Chinese from Pho and My Tho Islands came to Ben Nghe River Dike and founded a market which developed into the existent Cholon Market. More than a million Chinese live here. Check out Binh Tay Market and Soai Kinh Lam materials market. There are some interesting French-Vietnamese buildings on Hung Vuong Boulevard.

Matt Gross wrote in the New York Times, “Cholon occupies the same space in the Saigonese imagination that Los Angeles's Chinese quarter does in the movie "Chinatown." It's right there — Districts 5 and 6— but unknown, foreign. My Vietnamese friends had no acquaintances among its million or so inhabitants and barely knew the streets, which look just like Saigon's, only different: Chinese characters supplement the Roman Vietnamese script on signs; roast pigs and ducks hang in restaurant display cases; and the roads are lined with the low, balconied colonial-era shop houses on which the Lover's father made his fortune. [Source: Matt Gross, New York Times, April 30, 2006]

Emily Brady wrote in the New York Times, Stroll through the Old Quarter of Cholon and you’ll hear more Chinese spoken than Vietnamese. A 20-minute cab ride from District 1 (around 80,000 dong), this Viet-Chinatown is home to many fine temples, like Quan Am Pagoda (12 Lao Tu Street), built in 1818. Coils of incense hang from the ceiling, perfuming the air, along with the slender, golden sticks the faithful leave as offerings. In front of the main altar is a statue of Quan Am, the Goddess of Mercy. A nearby courtyard has nooks dedicated to other deities and a small pond filled with turtles. [Source: Emily Brady, New York Times, December 18, 2008]

Pagodas in Cholon include Tam Son Hoi Quan Pagoda, Thien Hau Pagoda, Nghia An Hoi Pagoda, Cholon Mosque, Quan Am Pagoda, Phuoc An Hois Quan Pagoda, On Bon Pagoda, Ha Choun Hoi Quan Pagoda, Khanh Van Nam Vien Pagoda, and Phung Son Pagoda. An Quang Pagoda (Cholon) is where South Vietnam's notorious police chief, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, fired a revolver into the head of a suspected Vietcong guerilla. A photograph of the event appeared in newspapers all over the world, fueling the antiwar movement on the U.S. Ca Tam Church (Cholon) is where Diem fled and hid with his brother during a coup before being assassinated in a November 1963. It is also known as Françious Xavier Church.

Binh Tay Market (in Cholon at Tran Hung Dao Street, District 5, near the Cha Tam Church) has a lively atmosphere and lots of good buys. Emily Brady wrote in the New York Times: “For everything from fermented duck eggs to flip-flops, head to Binh Tay Market, a rambling market laid out like an Arab souk and far less touristy than the Ben Thanh Market downtown. Situated between Thap Muoi and Phan Van Khoe Streets, the market is divided into sections that contain everything one might need to run a household, from kitchenware, to cloth, to candied fruit. Pushy peddlers are almost nonexistent; some merchants even nap in hammocks between customers. Toward the back, you can grab lunch, like a tasty bowl of seafood noodle soup at one of the many stalls (18,000 dong) and listen to a rooster crow in the nearby butcher section (not for the squeamish). [Source: Emily Brady, New York Times, December 18, 2008]

PARKS IN AND AROUND HO CHI MINH CITY

PARKS IN AND AROUND HO CHI MINH CITY include Ho Ky Hia Park, a children's amusement park; Binh Quoi Tourist Village; Cong Vien Van Hoa Park relatively quiet park designed by the French with a roller rink, the National Museum and numerous waking paths; Cach Mang Thang Tham Street (near the entrance of Cong Vien van Hoa park next to the Bank of China) is were songbird enthusiast bring their birds and chat about their hobby. Van Thanh Park (48/10 Dien Bien Phu Street, Binh Thanh District) lies on the bank of the Thi Nghe River, a branch of the Saigon River. From the park, there is a view of Vung Tau. At night, Van Thanh Park is filled with music. Festivals, fashion shows, and cast selections are often held in the park. Suoi Tien Tourist Area (Thu Duc District, northeast of Ho Chi Minh City center) has an aquarium with hundreds of fish species and other marine creatures swimming in glass tunnels. Approximately 2,000 crocodiles bred in Crocodile Lake.

Dam Sen Cultural Park (3 Hoa Binh St., Ward 3, District 11) is one of largest and most modern parks in Vietnam, with an area of approximately 50 hectares. It contains gardens rich in Oriental characteristics such as Nam Tu Thuong Uyen (Southern Royal Garden) with flowers, ancient ornaments, bonsai, and a large garden of orchids of strains all over the country. On the other side of the lake, European garden and Roman Square are located in style of Western architecture.

Dam Sen is also an amusement park and a place to entertain children, with and animalcircus, water puppetry, games such as Overcoming Waterfall, a roller coaster, Discovery of Virtual World, a 60-meter-high Ferris Wheel, the Flying Trapeze, Spinning Coaster, the Haunted Castle, a laser show and movies presentation on a water screen and a dinosaur park Restaurants throughout the park include Dam Sen Floating restaurant. The park also organizes many cultural activities and festival like Kings Hung anniversary, tourism celebration party, the liberation of South Vietnam, Spring flower festival and Southern Area festival. Tel: (84-8) 3963 4963/ 3855 4963/ 3858 7826; Fax: 39633073

Dam Sen Fitness Center is situated in Dam Sen Cultural Part near the Dam Sen Floating Restaurant, Dam Sen Supermarket and Dam Sen Water Park. It has three tennis court and health services such as: massage, steam, water acupuncture, Jacuzzi, relaxation, beauty salon, and a coffee bar with cable television. Tel : (84-8) 38841193/ 39634963 ; Fax: (84-8) 39633073

Dam Sen Water Park (District 11, Ho Chi Minh City, at the corner of Lac Long Quan and Hoa Binh Streets) is divided into 30 parts and features activities, restaurants, shows, a puppet show, a bird garden, a water park, a sports center, the Nam Tu Royal Garden and small reproductions of the Giac Vien Pagoda, the Thuy Ta floating restaurant and a lake similar to West Lake in Hanoi where one can fish. The 26 types of water entertainment include a 3000- square-meter wave pool, slides, a rope swing over a waterfall, a 400-meter-long floating river, a massage pool. The high speed Tornado slide is 20 meters high and 119 meters long. The Black Thunder slide has sound and lighting effects. There is also the four-lane Multi Slide, 12 meter-high Love Storm with three turning twists and the Twister Space Bowl slide. Tel: (84 - 8) 3858 8418; Fax: 3858 8419,

HO CHI MINH CITY ZOO AND BOTANICAL GARDEN

HO CHI MINH CITY ZOO AND BOTANICAL GARDEN (No.2 Nguyen Binh Khiem Street, District 1) was founded by J.B. Louis Pierre, a famous French botanist. Saigoneses like to call the Garden So thu. In Vietnamese it means "the zoological park". Its official name however is the Thao Cam Vien. In Vietnamese "Thao" means "plants and trees" and "Thu" means "animals": indicating that the garden has both plants and animals.

Construction of the garden started in March 1864 and it was opened in May 1865 on a 20 hectares area. Originally the garden was solely concerned with the growing of some imported industrial plants such as cacao, coffee, vanilla and rubber, as well as collecting exotic animals and birds from tropical Vietnam for zoos in France. The press praised the garden as one of the most beautiful parks in the Far East, second only to the Zoological and Botanical Garden in Singapore.

However, from 1942 to 1954, the Japanese and French armies in turn used Thao Cam Vien as their barracks. During these twelve years the cages were damaged and many animals and birds died from lack of care. At this time also, many established old trees were cut down. In recent years the garden has been restored and has expanded with the help of many countries and organizations around the world.

The Park forms a green space in the middle of the city. After the main entrance, visitors will find themselves walking between two lines of tall nhac ngua trees. On their left is the History Museum. On their right is the Temple of the Kings Hung, founders of the Vietnamese nation. In the green houses are orchids, cacti and bonsai. After visiting the bird and animal cages, the visitors can stop and relax by the lake to enjoy the scene of lotuses, water lilies, schools of carps, anabases and pikes. The elephants at the Ho Chi Minh City zoo sit tethered to chains and swing their trunks back and forth in a form of mental illness biologists called zoochosis. Tel: 84-8-3829-1425; www.saigonzoo.net; admission, 12,000 dong.

Emily Brady wrote in the New York Times, “Retreat from humanity at the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens, also home to a temple and history museum. The gardens feature 2,000 trees including Chinese incense-cedar, a bonsai “forest” and a large greenhouse full of purple orchids. Animals include bored-looking orangutans in cages close enough to touch and a small herd of Asian elephants. There is also a colony of penguin-shaped garbage cans scattered around the place, along with many benches where you can sit and ponder this surreal touch. [Source: Emily Brady, New York Times, December 18, 2008]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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